But in fact, the president dived into many of the themes that have been urged on him by left-wing class warriors: the disappearing middle class, “the breathtaking greed of a few,” “insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity,” “mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford,” and so on. We can’t “go back to business as usual”: a universally endorsed principle at all times.
As Thomas Frank pointed out in his 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” conservatives thrived for many years by stoking the fires of popular resentment against (usually unnamed) elitists who sneer at religion, pursue bizarre sexual practices, join the ACLU but diss the Boy Scouts, burn the flag in their spare time, and so on. Then conservatives cried “class war” when liberals tried, with little success, to redirect the populist rhetoric against its more traditional targets of bankers, Wall Street and big business CEOs.
For ordinary voters, it was a great bait-and-switch. Recruited for the cultural class war, they found themselves fighting the economic one -- but on the wrong side, the side of the bankers and businessmen.
But just lately, because of the financial crisis of 2008, the scandals that went with it and growing income inequality, financial class-war arguments are gaining more traction and the cultural class war has almost disappeared. When you’ve been laid off and your kids have moved back into your house after college because they can’t find a job either, you start to lose interest in whether the National Endowment for the Arts is financing smutty pictures.
My problem with Obama’s speech is that the president muddles together a variety of very different categories. There are out-and-out crooks and shysters. There are clever financiers who manipulated the rules and took advantage of loopholes -- and ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves -- but did nothing illegal. There are the very, very rich -- the notorious 1 percent, or 1 percent of 1 percent -- who have benefited from changes in the economy that they may or may not have had any control over. Then there are the affluent -- annual income of $250,000 or more a year is as good a benchmark as any -- who, before the recession, were doing better and better for reasons no one was entirely sure of.
Below these people in the Obama taxonomy is the great middle class, whose members just want to work hard and be rewarded with sufficient means to raise their families, own a house and send their kids to college. Below them, although not dwelt upon, are the genuinely poor: the homeless, single mothers on welfare, old folks with chronic diseases, and -- an oft-forgotten group -- people who went as far as their energy and talents could take them in the approved American manner, only that turned out to be not very far. (Off to the side and surprisingly unmentioned by the president are the holy men and women of American capitalism, small-business owners. They, of course, are deserving of every tax break and, by definition, can do no wrong.)
For every group Obama takes to task, he also has a “to be sure” passage in which he tries to make clear that he’s not talking about you. But if you listen to the music, not the words, you might well think otherwise. A wish to raise taxes on top-bracket taxpayers doesn’t prove that you “hate the rich” or that you’re trying to stoke the fires of class warfare. It doesn’t mean you define an income of $250,000 as “rich.” It simply means that you believe that the people who’ve been most fortunate in this country are in the best position to contribute more to solving its financial problems. But this distinction is hard to maintain if you’re simultaneously suggesting that there is something ill-gotten about most rich people’s gains.
People really resent this. I have a friend, a banker, who voted for Obama in 2008 but senses that he is being picked on unfairly. Which he is. And he is not pacified by reminders that Obama’s grandmother was a banker, as charming and surprising to some as that may be.
Crooks and Affluent
Fairness to bankers may not seem like the most pressing issue on the justice agenda. But in addition to being unfair, conflating actual crooks and the innocent affluent makes it hard to claim that raising their taxes isn’t punishment for some form of misbehavior. Taxes are not a punishment; they are a source of necessary revenue. But if you tie them to the financial scandal, they sound pretty punitive.
A second big problem with Obama’s philosophy, as revealed in this speech, is really the biggest economic problem facing the U.S. in general. That is, the middle-class sense of entitlement. This is an odd moment in the history of the American economy. We need more government spending (or tax cuts) to spur us out of the doldrums, but we also need less government spending (or tax increases) to prevent national bankruptcy or at best a long period of stagnation.
The official, or semiofficial, game plan is to spend our way out of the danger of recession, and then slam on the brakes and reverse course. The first part is easy, even pleasant; the second part is hard to imagine.
In Obama’s speech, he went into great detail about the first part -- the spending part, the part about how unfair life has been to the middle class -- and somehow forgot to mention the second part -- the savings part, the part about how the middle class is going to have to fork over like everyone else to get us out of this jam (because the middle class is almost everybody). Eating dessert first is great fun, but green beans lie ahead, as a really great speech would have reminded us.
(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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